A/N: JE owns the characters. I'm just playing with them. :)

This story is AU. Steph has never become a bounty hunter. Eventual Babe HEA, Cupcake warning!

Chapter 1

I looked at myself in the mirror, my eyes tearing up when I saw the purple bruise covering my cheek. Joe had come home drunk again last night, and evidently my dinner of frozen lasagna and garlic bread hadn't been to his liking. I clenched my hands into fists and let out a scream. When had I become a woman who allowed someone to abuse her? How had it happened?

Slowly. That's how.

I had been working at E. E. Martin as a lingerie buyer, and my apartment had been broken into. At the time, Joe was still working the streets, and he was the cop who responded to my call. I was so glad to see a familiar face that I was willing to forget about the Tasty Pastry incident, and he was willing to forget about the Buick incident. He had been so patient with me, soothing. He knew how upset I was, that I was scared to stay in my apartment that night. He had called a friend of his to fix the locks right away. And then he had come back around 8:00 with a pizza. He stayed and watched a movie with me until I fell asleep. And then he had carried me into my bed and tucked himself in on the couch. He had been my knight in shining armor, rescuing me from the scary situation.

At that time, I was coming home once every 2 to 3 weeks for the obligatory family dinner. I had mentioned what happened and how wonderful Joe had been. Coincidentally, Joe had mysteriously appeared at the very next dinner. We had visited through dinner and dessert, and I agreed to come over to his house the next night to watch the Rangers game and have subs.

From there, we got into a comfortable rhythm of bouncing between my apartment and his place, eating takeout and watching sports and movies. That continued for about 6 months, until I lost my job when E. E. Martin was closed due to some shady business dealings.

I limped along as well as I could for as long as I could. I applied for unemployment and looked for work everywhere, but there were no jobs to be found. By that time, we had been dating for almost a year, and Joe suggested the logical solution- I should move in with him.

Our mothers had mixed feelings about this decision. On one hand, they were cautiously happy, hoping that this meant we were planning on getting engaged soon. On the other, they were mortified that we were living in sin.

Joe and I had talked about marriage, but we weren't in any hurry to make things official. Well, at least I wasn't. Once I had moved into Joe's house, he acted as though we were already married. He certainly expected me to do the "housewifey" things around the house while he was off at work during the day. Laundry, cleaning, cooking.

I didn't mind pulling my weight around the house. After all, it certainly wasn't like I could afford to pay rent, and I didn't want to take advantage of him and his hospitality. It was just that I felt like his expectations were a little ridiculous. He expected me to clean the entire house from top to bottom every day. Every bed should be made. Every floor should be swept. Every piece of dirty laundry should be washed, dried, and put away. Every dish should be washed and put away. There should be a home cooked meal, made from scratch, on the table every night at 6:00.

It took me a while to realize that that was what he expected. I figured it out mostly from the snide comments he would make in passing when he got home. "Rough day today, Cupcake? Too busy to wash the dishes, I see." "Takeout again? I understand. You had another long day at the office."

The first time he hit me came as a complete shock. I think to both of us. We had been arguing about the laundry. I had left a clean, folded stack of Joe's clothes on the bed for him to put away. He was pissed that I hadn't put them away for him. I was explaining, rather loudly, that I thought he was old enough to put away his own damn underwear when he reached out and slapped me.

I froze. He froze. Then I started crying, and he started apologizing. He gathered me up in his arms and begged me to forgive him. He got down on his knees and swore it wouldn't happen again. That he loved me, he needed me. And like an idiot, I forgave him. And forgave him. And forgave him. Over and over and over.

But today was it. Today was the last straw. I took in a shuddering breath and tried to think of someone who could help me. I needed someone who could teach me self defense. Someone who knew about pressing charges against an abusive partner. Someone who could protect me from him. But I couldn't think of anyone.

I called my best friend Mary Lou to see if she could help me figure out where to turn. Mary Lou knew most of what had happened with Joe. She didn't know all of it, but she knew enough, and she was smart enough to figure out the rest.

"Hello, Stankovic residence. Mary Lou speaking."

"Hey, Mare." I whispered. "It's me."

Upon hearing my voice, her tone became cautious. "Hey, Steph. How are ya, honey?"

I let out a choked sob. "Um, actually, I could use a little help."

"Oh, honey." She whispered.

"Mare, do you know anyone who could help me? I need someone who knows the ins and outs of the legal system. Someone who could help me figure out what to do."

"You need a lawyer, hun."

I snorted. "Maybe I should call Dickie. See if he'll give me a break on a consultation."

Mary Lou laughed. "Not likely."

"No lawyers, Mare. I can't afford any kind of fee. I need someone free. Someone who's used to working with the cops, with the courts."

There was a long pause before she spoke again. "What about your cousin Vinnie? Doesn't he do bail bonds? He's down at the courthouse all the time. Maybe he has some lawyer friends or judge friends who could give you some free advice."

I chewed on my lower lip. I doubted that Vinnie had any human friends. His friends tended to run more towards the barnyard variety, but it was worth a try, right?

"Good idea, Mare. Let me call and see if he'll see me."

"Don't call. Pack an overnight bag and show up at his office. It's harder to refuse people in person."

I nodded, even though she couldn't see me. She had a good point. "Thanks, Mare." I whispered.

"No problem, honey. Maybe Vinnie can help you figure out a place to hide out for a while. Somewhere you'd be safe while you got some self defense training and talked to a lawyer."

"Does such a place exist?" I asked skeptically. "And if such a place did exist, wouldn't Joe know about it? He's a cop after all."

"You never know!" Mary Lou replied.

True. Very true. I thanked my friend again for her suggestion and headed upstairs to pack. I threw in all of my bathroom items, some pajamas, and two complete changes of clothes. Hopefully once I found a place to stay, I could come back for more. I sure as hell couldn't buy more. I had no money!

My car had been repossessed, but I had been using my Uncle Sandor's Buick for a while. I loaded my stuff into the car and motored down to Vinnie's office. I'd only been there a few times before, but I was hoping he would take pity on a family member in need and suggest someone who could help me.

I took a deep breath and pushed open the door to the bail bonds office. Vinnie's office manager, Connie, was sitting behind her desk filing her nails. She looked up when I walked in and let out a gasp. "Stephanie?"

My eyes filled with tears as I nodded.

She got up and walked around the desk, pulling me against her large chest for a hug. "What happened, honey?" she asked softly, taking in my mostly purple face.

I cleared my throat. "I need some help, Connie. I was hoping that you or Vinnie would know someone."

She stepped back, a confused look on her face. "If you want to file charges, you need to go to the police, Steph. Can't Joe help you?"

I bit my lip. "Joe has helped enough already."

I watched as the understanding dawned on her face. "That piece of shit!" she growled. "What kind of help do you need? You want to file charges, or you want me to call my Uncle Tony?"

In spite of the horrible circumstances, I smiled. Connie's family was Family. A call to her Uncle Tony would be the first step in arranging a meeting between Joe, a pair of cement boots, and a very deep body of water.

"Well, I don't know if you can give me any help or advice or not. But Mary Lou suggested that maybe Vinnie knew of someone who could help me hide out for a while. Like a safehouse or something. Maybe someone who could give me some self defense lessons. But it would have to be someone who wouldn't hand me right back over to Joe." As I listened to myself talk, I realized how absolutely ridiculous I sounded. I blew out a sigh. "Never mind, Connie."

She studied me closely for a minute as if trying to decide how serious I was. She must have decided I meant it because a grin spread across her face. "Actually I think I know of just the guy."

My head snapped up. "Really?"

She nodded, still wearing a huge grin. She walked over and picked up her phone, punching in a number. I listened in to her side of the conversation.

"Hey, Ranger, this is Connie. I need a favor."

"Vinnie's cousin is here. She's in an abusive relationship with a TPD officer. She needs a place to hide out for a while and maybe some self defense training. Do you think RangeMan could help her?"

I crossed my fingers as we both waited for the answer.

She smiled and gave me a thumbs up sign, and I let out a huge sigh of relief.

"How soon can you meet up with her?"

"This afternoon? Yeah, she can come there." Connie wrote something down on a piece of paper and handed it over to me.

"OK, yeah, I'll tell her. Thanks, Ranger. I really appreciate it!"

Connie hung up, and I rushed over to give her a hug. "Thank you, Connie!"

She smiled. "No problem, honey. Ranger said to drive to that address on Haywood. There's a gated garage entrance there. He said to push the intercom button and tell the guard who you are and they'll buzz you in."

I wiped away a few tears that had slipped out and gave Connie another hug. "Thanks again!"

She waved off my thanks. "Anytime, honey. And if things don't work out with Ranger, let me know, and I'll call my Uncle." She winked at me.

I shook my head and walked out to my car. I drove over to Haywood and found the gated garage entrance. Pulling up to the speaker box, I pushed the button.

A deep voice answered. "Can I help you?"

I cleared my throat and squeaked out, "Um. I'm Stephanie Plum. Vinnie's cousin. I'm supposed to meet with Ranger?"

"One second." The guard replied. I assumed he was checking to see if I actually had an appointment with this Ranger person. A few seconds later, the gate slid open.

I pulled into the underground parking garage and pulled into an empty spot near the elevator. I got out and looked around. Now what was I supposed to do? I walked over to the elevator looking for a directory or something but found nothing.

The elevator doors opened, but there was no one inside. "Hello?" I called out.

A voice answered me from inside the elevator. "Step in. Ranger is waiting on the 5th floor."

I nodded and stepped in, fidgeting while the elevator climbed up to the 5th floor. When the doors slid open, I gasped. A huge black man was waiting just outside the doors. He nodded at me and motioned for me to follow him. I walked down the hall, and he waved me into an empty conference room.

Once I had stepped through the door, he closed it. I looked around, my eyes wide. Where on Earth had Connie sent me?